Barcelona 2-8 Bayern Munich reads the score-board at the Estadio da Lux in Lisbon. Not since the Estádio Mineirão read a scoreline equally ridiculous have football fans been shell-shocked and slack jawed. 8-2 in a Champions League quarter-final in a game contested by two elite sides.
Games like the quarter-final that took place on August 15th 2020 are games that will forever be remembered. It’s like that infamous Germany win over Brazil, like that infamous two-legged Barcelona vs PSG game, like that AS Roma come-back against Barcelona and so many others. But the crux of the other games, barring that World Cup clash, was the fact that they were two-legged games. This happened over one leg and yet even then, it could be so much worse for Barcelona.
Because this has been coming for quite some-time and while it may sound harsh, it’s the truth. Somehow, Ernesto Valverde managed to keep Barcelona intact and solid in Spain and in the La Liga but when it came to the Champions League he couldn’t sustain it. So Barcelona reacted, sacked the Spaniard and replaced him with Johan Cruiff’s long-lost pupil. It was supposed to be the match made in heaven for Barcelona and yet, six months on it seems like another chaotic experiment.
And yet, the blame cannot entirely be heaped onto Quique Setien because Barcelona’s plan over the last half decade has been nothing but pure chaos. For Barcelona fans, this is something they know and have heard a catalogue of times over the years and yet for some reason their club doesn’t seem to realise the truth. They had everything the club ever wanted at the end of the 2014/15 season because their recruitment was a hit, the club thrived and they lifted the treble.
But in the six odd years since, Barcelona have spent well over nearly a billion euros on 29 players and yet, they haven’t solved their greatest problem. The fact that Lionel Messi is 33 and the Argentine’s influence is waning. You see, this is Barcelona’s biggest problem and the biggest one the club will ever face especially in a footballing world such as this. Because, for those who live under a rock, Lionel Andres Messi is by far Barcelona’s greatest ever player.
Now that statement may be slightly subjective but the overwhelming opinion all moves along that tangent. He may even go down as the greatest footballer to ever play the game and yet Barcelona do not seem to have a plan for anything. Their current on-field gameplan is effectively a pass the ball to Messi and hope for the best but their plan for a future without the Argentine is even worse. That brings about another problem for the club because this is a side that has transitioned so well from superstars.
Think about it as you flip through Barcelona’s squad lists over the last few decades and one thing becomes painfully obvious, without a bonafide star, Barcelona have struggled to win. Before Messi, it was Ronaldinho before him it was Rivaldo and Figo before that it was Ronaldo Nazario before that it was Johan Cryuff’s super team. Move back even further and you had Gary Lineker (a great in his time), Bernd Schuster before him, Diego Armando Maradona and Johan Cryuff before that and Luis Suarez and Laszlo Kubala before that.
The list goes on and on and on and it’s a rather telling story for Barcelona and one that defines the club. In the years without superstars, Camp Nou struggled to showcase their titles because they didn’t have any. They spent 14 years without a league title between Suarez and Cruyff, had to watch as their post Maradona era struggled to win trophies before Cryuff stepped in and changed things. But this, this era might be the hardest for Barcelona to overcome and they’re not helping their cause.
There is the Neymar conundrum but it’s been three years since he left. In those three years, the club (according to Transfermarkt) has spent €789 million on players. Four of them sat on the bench, with two of them record signings, as Barcelona walked into the break 4-1 down against Bayern Munich with their most expensive buy sitting on Bayern’s bench. Three started the game with one in England, one in China, one in Russia, one refusing to play and a few didn’t even make the starting 23.
It practically screams abhorrent recruitment and that has seen them spiral out of control and towards a chaotic depth that only AC Milan can understand. And as fans of the Rossoneri will tell you, it’s hard to dig yourself out of that hole because ignoring that meteorite racing to destroy you is exactly what collapses the right dominos that leads to a historic loss. Yet the even bigger problem that Barcelona face is the outcome of trying to overcome something as massive as what the loss of Lionel Messi does to a club.
Real Madrid managed to do it but they never had their identity built around their a serial Ballon d’Or winning superstar and were never overly reliant on him as this season has proved. Barcelona, on the other hand, have been struggling to try and build a team to help their superstar go out with a bang, it doesn’t give fans any hope for their future without him. And they’ll have to do it in a world where they are no longer the go to destination for players.
They will always be “the” European club and have enough money to spend on new additions but the playing field has now been levelled. The Premier League’s incredible broadcasting deal combined with the growth of clubs across Europe’s big five leagues has reduced the lure of the Camp Nou. So much so that any player Barcelona can get so can Juventus (as Matthijs de Ligt proved), so can Real Madrid, so can Paris Saint-Germain and the list is there for the world to see.
Since end of the 2014 window, by my calculations, Barça have signed 29 players for almost a billion euros.— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) August 14, 2020
How many have been an unqualified success? Not one?
It simply makes the club’s job even harder but for now, it looks like they’ve got some kind of idea. Build a semblance of a team for Messi’s final years and then deal with the aftermath. It’s what Juventus are doing in Turin as they chase after that elusive Champions League crown but the Old Lady’s financial dealings over the years have helped their cause. Barcelona, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same luxury because they are in serious debt and have a myriad of issues including at the board-room level to deal with.
But even then the reality is crystal clear, because Barcelona have failed at that and now the time has come to break up this team. Not everyone needs to be sold because both Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets have done enough to deserve a fitting farewell. And the likes of Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Frenkie de Jong, Ansu Fati and even Antoine Griezmann are building blocks for the future alongside the few gems at La Masia. There are a few others but the point is that Barcelona needs to break up the band.
The defeat to AS Roma all those years ago defined it before Liverpool did it again last year and by then it was clear. Now, it’s a fact that absolutely cannot be ignored because this team has run its course and it’s been some journey. In twelve years since Guardiola laid the first brick, they dominated Europe and won countless trophies but their time has come. However, this won’t be an easy transition but nothing worth doing is and it will take a few years for Barcelona to right their wrongs and find their way again.
But with Lionel Messi at the core and in his final years, this could be their chance to build another super-team with a wise and wily veteran at the heart of it all or else face the consequences of becoming yet another giant who lives in the past. And for a club like Barcelona to do that would be beyond easy thanks to the aptly titled "Barcelona Licensing and Merchandising" which has merchandised and monetized the past and by doing that they earned a sensational, and the most in Europe, €840 million last season.
46% of that is all commercial income with broadcast accumulating for 35% and the rest all matchday but it's that commercial bit that will continue to rise. And there's nothing wrong with that, not one bit. But for a club that claims to be amongst Europe's best and have that incredible need to win everything, every single season watching their footballing empire crumble has to hurt or at the very least sting.
Their marketing one will remain about as steady as a rock thanks to the fact that it's been hitched onto the back of Lionel Andres Messi but their footballing one has been crumbling for many a day without a solution in place. The question, however, that we sitting outside can't answer is what will Barcelona do about that? It's an answer they seem to not have.